THIRTY-SOMETHINGS FINDING THEIR COMFORT ZONE IN OCTOBER
By Jerry Crasnick
The Washington Nationals are a monument to fun this October -- as evidenced by the frenzy surrounding Gerardo Parra’s “Baby Shark’’ walkup song, their dugout dance parties and the group hugs that Parra and Anibal Sanchez share with a reluctant Stephen Strasburg when his day’s work is complete.
Amid the anticipation of the franchise’s first World Series appearance, reliever Sean Doolittle reflects on a pivotal sequence in May when the Nats were 19-31 and the atmosphere was grim. An air of desperation permeated the clubhouse, and the season could have gone either way.
“A young team wouldn’t have survived what we went through in May,’’ Doolittle said. “It would have folded. The veteran guys here have been through stuff like that before. They’ve been part of winning teams, and they knew not to panic and how really good we could be. Losing is easy. You just show up. Winning is harder, and we had to find our identity as a group. Without the veteran leadership in here, we wouldn’t have made it through. You can’t quantify that.’’
Here’s something quantifiable: The Nationals have the oldest team in the majors with an average age of 31.1, and lots of company among other successful clubs this season. Their World Series counterparts, the Astros, are fourth in average age at 29.4. The other teams in MLB’s top seven: The NL East champion Braves (29.7), the AL East title-winning Yankees (29.6), the 106-win Dodgers (29.0), and the Cubs and NL Central champion Cardinals (both 28.8).
As more MLB rosters trend young, the Nationals embrace their diversity with a sense of humor and accompanying sense of pride. They refer to themselves as the “Viejos’’ -- which is Spanish for “Julio Franco-in-training.’’
Howie Kendrick, the NLCS MVP, has nine RBIS this postseason -- the most for a player older than 36 since Carlos Beltran drove in 15 and David Ortiz knocked in 13 in 2013. Max Scherzer, who will start Game 1 against Houston’s Gerrit Cole on Tuesday, averaged a career-high 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings at age 35. Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes combined for 29 home runs out of the catcher spot. Parra, Asdrubal Cabrera, Brian Dozier and Matt Adams give Washington manager Dave Martinez lots of options off bench, and Ryan Zimmerman, 35, is in his wheelhouse as a former first-round pick who has represented the organization with professionalism and humility since his debut in 2005.
“Zim is a Time Lord,’’ said Doolittle, in reference to the ancient extraterrestrial species in the British science fiction TV series “Doctor Who.’’ As Wikipedia explains, “Time Lords are so named for their command of time travel technology and their non-linear perception of time.’’
The Astros have a few esteemed elders of their own. Justin Verlander is still a force at 36, while Zack Greinke was a difference maker after coming over from Arizona by trade in July. Josh Reddick, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel and catchers Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado all fall in the 32-35 age bracket. They’ve brought wisdom, consistency and perspective to a clubhouse with a formidable prime-time nucleus led by Gerrit Cole, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa.
“Just because you’re a veteran doesn’t mean you can teach somebody something or you’re a great clubhouse guy, but it’s hard say there’s no value in it,’’ said Astros reliever Joe Smith, 35. “If you talk to the guys who were here when they won in ‘17, they all talk about the respect and things they learned from Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. Guys have told me, ‘We wouldn’t have won the World Series without those two.’ ’’
Inspirational stories abound among Washington’s veterans. Kendrick overcame a torn Achilles tendon in May 2018. Nats closer Daniel Hudson is a two-time Tommy John surgery survivor, while middle reliever Aaron Barrett is back from an elbow reconstruction and a broken right arm. Anibal Sanchez nearly retired a year ago, and Fernando Rodney still hits 94 mph on the radar gun at age 42. Take the combined ages for outfielders Victor Robles and Juan Soto, and they have about 10 months on Rodney.
The veterans on the Washington and Houston rosters are happy to pay it forward and share their insights, because that’s how they were raised in the game. Dozier grew up in the Twins’ organization with Michael Cuddyer, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham as influences. Smith collected pieces of advice from Tom Glavine, Billy Wagner and Aaron Sele as a young player and filed them away for future reference.
“You need coaches, and they’ve really helped me,’’ Smith said. “It’s just different when you hear something from a player.’’
Will MLB teams take those factors into account this winter, when Smith, Dozier, Kendrick, Parra and other veterans hit the free agent market? Dozier, 32, is hoping events of this offseason will help change the industry narrative and make for a more welcome environment for players in his demographic.
“It’s important to have guys who’ve been around and know the grind rather than just show up and play -- like I did when I was a lot younger,’’ Dozier said. “It starts with how to approach spring training, how to approach the beginning of the season so you’ll be ready for the end, and how to approach it when you go through Aprils like we went through.’’
Now that it’s World Series time, the events of April and May seem like ages ago in Washington. There’s nothing like October baseball to make a Viejo feel like a kid again.